After a French friend informed a few of his American colleagues that the center-right weekly magazine Le Point had printed a translation of Ted Hill’s article in Quillette, in which he alleges that an article of his had been censored by both the Mathematical Intelligencer and the New York Journal of Mathematics on political grounds, I decided I had no alternative to wasting half an hour familiarizing myself with a few of the details. Having done so, I am just going to reproduce the message I sent to my French friend.
But first: the French verb obnubiler is usually translated “to obsess,” which has nothing in common with the English cognate obnubilate, which means literally to cloud. But in fact, French dictionaries interpret obnubiler quite differently: someone is described as obnubilé whose judgment is clouded or impeded by an obsession. The obsessive and repeated attempts to explain differences in power and status by genetic factors is a good example of obnubilation in this sense.
Now for my message:
I really don’t want to be wasting my time on this, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to. Here is a description of Quillette:and here is an article by Gowers analyzing the claims in Hill’s alleged study.There is a second post, in which Gowers goes to extreme lengths to give Hill’s theses the benefit of the doubt, while remaining unconvinced.I’m not going to comment on the editorial process at the Intelligencer or the New York Journal of Mathematics, which is a matter of very little interest. What I see is just one more strained effort to disguise as scientific inquiry a thoroughly artificial and simplistic framing of a complex interaction of phenomena for which one has nothing resembling a coherent model, motivated solely by the demonstrate that the present distribution of power and resources has a natural basis. All of this has dramatic political implications and the “libertarians” with whom Quillette identifies may belong to all kinds of tendencies — Dawkins used to be some kind of leftist, Pinker is a
[censored!]liberal, Charles Murray is definitely right-wing — but the organized forces overlap significantly with the alt-right.The problem with this sort of online debate is that it’s presented as intellectual censorship, while in fact it’s something else entirely. Most of the liberals who are confused by this framing would never defend the right of creationists or climate change deniers — or holocaust deniers — to equal time, in the name of freedom of expression. But there is a surprising openness to polemics disguised as scientific analysis when the aim is to prove that women are inferior at one thing or another.To my mind, the best response to claims about hereditary differences in intelligence is still Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which illustrates the lengths to which defenders of inequality will go in attempting to prove their theses. That was written nearly 40 years ago. (You may remember that he mentioned that at one point IQ tests had been used as scientific proof that Jews were intellectually inferior to northern Europeans.) Gould wrote a shorter but no less devastating review of The Bell Curve in 1994.Unfortunately this particular vampire has not yet been nailed to its tomb once and for all. Here is what I wrote about this in the middle of an article about the responsibility of mathematicians, for the celebration of Reuben Hersh’s 90th birthday.
I want to discuss an older story, one in which the mathematical sciences play at most a supporting role, but that I think illustrates well how philosophical confusion about the nature of mathematics can interfere with informed judgment. Here is a sentence that, syntactically at least, looks like a legitimate question to which scientific investigation can be applied:
Does mathematical talent have a genetic basis?
On the one hand the answer is obviously yes: bonobos and dolphins are undoubtedly clever but they are unable to use the binomial theorem. The question becomes problematic only when the attempt is made to measure genetic differences in mathematical talent. Then one is forced to recognize that it is not just one question innocently chosen from among all the questions that might be examined by available scientific means. It has to be seen against the background of persistent prejudices regarding the place of women and racially-defined groups in mathematics. I sympathize as much as anyone with the hope that study of the cognitive and neurological basis of mathematical activities can shed light on the meaning of mathematics — and in particular can reinforce our understanding of mathematics as a human practice — but given how little we know about the relation between mathematics and the brain, why is it urgent to establish differences between the mathematical behavior of male and female brains? The gap is so vast between whatever such studies measure and anything resembling an appreciation of the difficulties of coming to grips with the conceptual content of mathematics that what really needs to be explained is why any attention, whatsoever, is paid to these studies. Ingrained prejudice is the explanation that Occam’s razor would select. But I’ve heard it argued often enough, by people whose public behavior gives no reason to suspect them of prejudice, that it would be unscientific to refuse to examine the possibility that the highlighted question has an answer that might be politically awkward. It’s the numerical form of the data, I contend, and the statistical expertise brought to bear on its analysis, that provide the objectivity effect, the illusion that one’s experiment is actually measuring something objective (and that also conveniently forestalls what ought to be one’s first reaction: why has Science devoted such extensive resources to just this kind of question?) The superficially mathematical format of the output of the experiment is a poor substitute for thought. Maybe something is being measured, but we have only the faintest idea of what it might be.More concisely: if the question is not scientific, then the answer won’t be scientific either. Or even more concisely: garbage in, garbage out.Michael
Like so many conservative ideologues who rail against the largely bogus ogre of suffocating political correctness, Herrnstein and Murray claim that they only want a hearing for unpopular views so that truth will out. And here, for once, I agree entirely. As a card–carrying First Amendment (near) absolutist, I applaud the publication of unpopular views that some people consider dangerous. I am delighted that The Bell Curve was written–so that its errors could be exposed, for Herrnstein and Murray are right to point out the difference between public and private agendas on race, and we must struggle to make an impact on the private agendas as well. But The Bell Curve is scarcely an academic treatise in social theory and population genetics. It is a manifesto of conservative ideology; the book’s inadequate and biased treatment of data display its primary purpose—advocacy.